A place at the table

A midafternoon break somewhere on the Camino: a tomato and cheese bocadillo, cerveza, my credencial, and my trusty walking stick. This photo actually has relatively little to do with this post, but I have almost no photos of actual albergues and I really like this one.

One reason I want to go back and do the Camino again is the albergues.

Albergues, or refugios, are an integral part of the Camino’s infrastructure. They’re roughly equivalent to hostels all over Europe — usually they provide a bed in a dorm, or possibly beds in a private room for a little extra, a shared bathroom, and a place to wash your clothes. Along most of the Camino, a stay at an albergue costs under €10 per night per person; about €8 is pretty typical.

There are a few oddities about the albergues, though, compared to the hostels you may have stayed in elsewhere in Europe. First is the fact that most of them lock their doors at 10 p.m. The logic seems to be that peregrinos need their sleep and by God, they are going to get it whether they want to or not. Locking the doors at 10 discourages peregrinos from over-indulging in the local nightlife (if there is any) and encourages an early bed time. You can, of course, leave the albergue any time you want, which is important because a lot of peregrinos want to start off before sunrise in order to get most of their walking down before the heat of the day around 1 p.m. And you will have to leave the albergue by 8 a.m. the next morning; stays of multiple nights are highly discouraged, unless you have a doctor’s note saying that you need to stay longer. The hospitaler@s have a lot of cleaning to do, and they’ll have a fresh pack of pilgrims at their doorstep in the afternoon, so you need to move on.

It’s all sort of weirdly parental. At the first real albergue we stayed at, in Cirauqui, I had a brief conversation with the hospitalera who ran the place while my parents were resting. She was probably around 40, dark-haired, high-cheekboned, speaking in clipped, no-nonsense tones. She had absolutely no interest in listening to me fumble with Spanish; after the first time I paused, searching for a word or conjugation, she ordered me to switch to English. She smoked a cigarette as I talked about how the first few days of our pilgrimage had gone. When I mentioned that we’d been starting out around 9 a.m., post-breakfast and coffee, she cut me off to scold me. We must start earlier, she told me, otherwise we’d be walking when it was hottest and we obviously couldn’t handle that. I’m pretty sure I was sinking lower and lower in my chair, mumbling that I’d be sure to tell my parents while knowing that there was no way on earth they’d ever agree to start off before sunrise. Lo siento, señora. Pero gracias por el consejo.

The other thing that separates many albergues from typical hostels is the food.

That's my dad; the women sitting around us were variously from Australia and I think Germany?

9/12/12. That’s my dad smirking in the middle.

These pictures are from the albergue we stayed at in Villar de Mazarife, outside Leon. While some albergues and inns offer a sort of restaurant-style dinner, this is what I think of as the real albergue experience: dinner is included in the price of the stay, and you and all the other pilgrims sit down together to eat and chat.

This albergue was particularly memorable for its food: not only was it entirely vegetarian, it was GORGEOUS.

And the conversation was equally good! We’d stayed at a couple of other places with similar group dinners, but both times there’d been a substantial language barrier: in Cirauqui we ate with Graziela, an Italian woman who spoke French and Italian and only a little Spanish and even less English, as well as some French Canadians who mostly spoke French, and in Cirueña we ate with our two Spanish-speaking hosts and a a group of three Italians who mostly spoke Italian and a very little Spanish and English. In Villar de Mazarife, our dining companions were Australian, German, Belgian, and American, and everyone spoke English more or less fluently. Dad, Gina and I told them why they should visit Alaska, and they told us why we should visit their respective homes. I also vividly remember discussing the weather on the Camino with the German women across from me and talking about sunburns; I pulled aside my over-shirt to show them my tan lines and one of them exclaimed, “You look like you’re wearing a white T-shirt!” (Sadly I don’t think I have any pictures, but she was right — I got a wickedly bad sunburn my first day out on the road, and it settled into a farmer’s tan that took months to fade and really highlighted the fact that my natural skin color is “fluorescent under a blacklight.”)

Although my favorite part of the Camino as a whole was the walking itself, these albergue experiences are a very close second. Other pilgrims are the most interesting part of the Camino. Conversations develop a pattern, much like conversations the first couple of weeks of college: you start with “So where are you from?” and move on to either “So how long have you been walking/where did you start?” or “Why’d you decide to do this?” You talk about blisters and backpacks and the pictures you’re taking and the reactions from people back home and where you’re going tomorrow and (if you’re me) how sick you are of bocadillos.

And there’s something so — ancient about sitting down with all these other pilgrims to eat. Sharing a meal feels like such a direct connection to what pilgrims in the Middle Ages would have been doing, even if today there are (slightly) more vegetarian options and you can meet people who came over from Australia or Israel or Alaska.

You can do the Camino alone, make it a solitary pilgrimage, if that’s what it needs to be for you — but what I want more of is this. The connection to strangers. The community, the family, walking west.

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